Joanne Kamens, Addgene’s executive director, shares her top tips for effective scientific management
Good management can make an enormous difference in the success and productivity of any team. Unfortunately, new managers are rarely chosen because they have demonstrated skill at managing people. After 10-15 years of training, many scientists will be expected to run an academic lab or manage a team outside of academia with little experience and almost certainly no formal training. The kind of smarts and the types of skills that it takes to be a good scientist are not the same ones it takes to be a competent manager (much less a really good one). While getting your PhD or doing a postdoc, few science trainees have opportunities to work on their emotional intelligence or to hone their delegation skills.
So what makes a good manager? First, it takes an open mind willing to learn and develop skills. Managing a team is hard and scientists should reject the myth that “it comes naturally” to some. Most good managers have worked hard to learn principles of good management and they continually build their skill set with experience and trying new tactics. Second, being a good manager requires a focus on the goals. I believe the most important goals are to get a lot of stuff done, to produce excellent quality work and to create a team culture that provides a happy work environment. The first two goals may be obvious, but why the third? Happy people get more done and do better work and a positive culture attracts good people.
Here are three areas to work on.
Seek input as often as possible
During my first week at Addgene as Executive Director, one of my direct reports told me flat out “now that you are in charge, no one will tell you anything.” I made it a main goal to ensure that this was not true. She wasn’t wrong: people don’t usually make it a point to regularly give honest feedback to their managers. Some may feel that giving feedback will be perceived as complaining or whining. Others may worry that it seems like “tattling” if the issue involves other colleagues. Past experiences may lead them to believe that giving feedback is a waste of their time or the manager may come across as too busy to be receptive.
Whatever the reason, a successful manager is genuinely receptive to feedback and so learns valuable lessons from at least some employees.
Here are practices to encourage constructive input from your team:
- Solicit feedback regularly and often. A one-time event doesn’t get people sharing often enough.
- Have regular 1:1 meetings with team members and don’t become known for cancelling: ask for feedback and input on multiple topics every time you meet.
- Seek feedback in multiple formats. Ask for input and opinions in meetings, via email, at formal communications events or at informal gatherings. Confidential surveys can be a great way to get feedback, but shouldn’t be the only way.
- From a colleague: “Manage By Walking Around” (MWBA) – don’t hide in your office.
- Demonstrate you are open to feedback with your actions. Thank team members who volunteer constructive suggestions. Consider offering rewards (gift cards, an afternoon off, etc.). Act on information to make change whenever possible. Be public about changes that come about because of feedback you received.
Learn how to effectively provide feedback
Feedback is help and it should result in authentic assistance that enables the recipient to become more effective. Giving timely and useful feedback is an absolutely required aspect of being a successful manager. Great bosses tell people where they stand clearly and routinely. Employees hate to wonder what you are thinking of their work. A manager should always be respectful and kind, but clear with each employee about what they do well and where they need to improve.
Using direct language to give feedback can be difficult but it is incredibly important. Early in my career, I had a conversation with a junior member of my group who was not doing well and had been put on a performance improvement plan by his manager and human resources. When I asked him what was holding him back from improving, he responded “maybe I am just lazy.” I spent an entire weekend trying to figure out how someone could say that to their group leader. I finally figured it out on Sunday evening. I called him back into my office on Monday morning and asked him straight out if he realized that if he didn’t succeed at the goals outlined in the performance improvement plan he would fired. He was shocked. He didn’t realize: this direct language was not used anywhere in the improvement plan. The accompanying letter had a lot of language about “helping him succeed” but nothing about keeping him from being let go. He didn’t get the underlying intent and I had not been good at making sure his manager was giving him a clear message.
The real key to giving effective feedback is to practice doing it a lot. Consider being a mentor in a formal mentoring program or managing a summer intern to start practicing these skills early.
Here are some tips to get you started:
- Scientists often find it easier to give feedback in formal sessions using a specific list of questions after a task or period of work. Using a standard format not only enables you to discuss a person’s performance or what has been learned, it helps to plan effective next steps.
- Make sure to give positive feedback when it is merited. Some people find this hard — so get used to it by making it a concrete goal to say “thank you, job well done” to one of your employees every day.
- Never use email to deliver corrective feedback. A manager must be able to respond to the employee’s level of discomfort appropriately to get the message across.
- Prepare for a feedback session by writing down specific examples and notes so you can get back to the issues if the conversation gets off track or becomes emotional.
- Don’t let things fester, give feedback as close to an event as possible. If you wait too long, a small correction can become an unnecessarily big issue for you and for the employee.
- Don’t pretend something went well when it didn’t… but don’t “punish” someone for a past infraction. Feedback will only have a positive outcome if the employee sees that real change is possible in your eyes so their confidence is restored. A good manager does not hold grudges.
You can’t do it all yourself – delegate well
A management role dedicates, unsurprisingly, a lot of time to managing. This automatically means that a manager will do less hands-on task work. This can be frustrating as many people are promoted to management because of the quality of their own past work product. The new way to get things done is to be good at utilizing the skills and resources of your team. Involving your team effectively is your new measure of success.
There are a host of other advantages to practicing good delegation skills. Putting more people in leadership roles results in the generation of more ideas, initiative, and creative thinking. In addition, team members who take ownership of a project or task will be more invested in the outcome. Quality of work is often dramatically improved when tasks are distributed appropriately. Team members have opportunities to develop and stretch and this will result in happier, successful, more engaged employees who can accomplish great things.
I am routinely delighted by the results of delegating a project to someone else. Some years ago I delegated the generation of an informational presentation to a new member of my team. It was a topic I knew a lot about, but the idea of putting slides together was not that interesting to me. The person I asked to do it had to do a lot of reading and research to be able to do the task, but he was interested in the topic and I hoped that would help. I was floored by the results. He created a dynamic presentation including video and imagery and, because the subject was new to him, did a much better job than I would have at introducing this topic to the non-expert. Be bold, let go and delegate.
If you are overwhelmed with your to-do list and your team doesn’t seem to have enough to do, you’re probably not delegating enough.
Here are some delegation best practices:
- Meet regularly before during and after an assignment to discuss goals, expected outcomes, timelines and deadlines. Agree on a way to review project progress. Have a regular check-in meeting scheduled even if it is just 15 minutes a week.
- Delegate to someone with the correct level of skills and experience. It is good to delegate so the person doing the task will have to learn and stretch a little, but be careful not to go too far.
- Include people in deciding what should be delegated to them. Not all tasks are fun, but getting buy-in can help to ensure successful results.
- Provide adequate support. If you are perceived as too busy to be approachable for questions, mistakes will be made that could have been prevented. Make sure everyone understands that no question is “dumb” and that it is better to ask before wasting time.
- Make and update documented action plans! As a project progresses it is easy to forgot the original plan. Write down your plans in a shared document. Update frequently with progress reports, meeting minutes and plan changes. Written documentation helps to make sure everyone is on the same page.
- Focus on results. What does success look like? Agree on desired outcomes. Concern yourself with what is accomplished, rather than detailing how the work should be done. Your way is not the only way and may not even be the best way. This facilitates success and trust. Micromanaging is bad for everyone.
Some of this content was shared before via the Addgene blog. For more details and resources on managing people, see blog.addgene.org